All Quiet on the Western Affront

It’s not what you’ve done that gets you to an interview; it’s who’s willing to speak on your behalf to the hiring authority. Business Reporter's resident U.S. 'blogger Keil Hubert grudgingly acknowledges that the data proves the aphorism: personal referrals are by far the most effective technique for finding a new position.

This first e-mail that I read this morning was an overly-chipper greeting from a head-hunter looking for a ‘Senior Risk Analyst’ with ‘Cyber Security and GRC experience.’ I skimmed the posting and inquired about the particulars of the role. Who’s the client? What’s the professional growth potential? Why are you hunting for candidates 3,250 kilometres away from the client’s site? I didn’t expect a response, but it seemed discourteous to ignore the invitation. Besides, I was curious about what the head-hunter was actually thinking. The last thing I did before putting the invitation out of my mind entirely was to log the contact in an Excel workbook that I’ve been meticulously updating for the past five years.

I first built  a ‘tracker’ tool back in 2012 to help me keep track of my job search activities. I’d been notified that I’d been selected for mandatory military retirement. That means that I’d end my associated civil service role sometime in either 2013 or early 2014. I started applying for outside gigs immediately, assuming that it wouldn’t take long to line up a position that could start a few months after I mustered out. Take some time off as a virtual sabbatical to get a white paper and a book published, then get back to work. I figured that an IT leader with a decade’s experience in a director-equivalent role wouldn’t have any trouble finding a commensurate billet in the local economy. I wouldn’t need to relocate, and could choose the best offer out of several.

I was dead wrong. I learned the same lesson that most former-squaddies and public sector workers learn when transitioning back to the private sector: a grunt’s contributions to the greater good are always appreciated …. in the abstract. They’re almost useless in getting one’s boot in the door.

Odd how the platitude ‘We support our troops!’ often doesn’t translate into actual support

I didn’t actually start a new full-time gig until exactly one day shy of eighteen months after I started my search. It was darned good thing that I’d started looking well before I left my paying gig. If I’d have been foolish enough to put things off, it could have been much worse.

My job search tracker was inspired by my civil service boss. The fellow asked me every morning how I was getting along. I was already inclined to follow a deliberate, systematic approach, so I created a handwritten table on the white board in my office so that my boss could drop in anytime and see how I was progressing. At first, I chose to track four different types of positions:

  • Public Sector (Federal); I only needed another eight years’ service in the federal system to qualify for a full US government pension. I’d also get to keep all of my ridiculously high accrued annual leave and sick leave balances.
  • Public Sector (Other); this category included city, county, and state positions, as well as higher-education and charity roles. No leave retention or pension there, and lower salary potential, but relatively stable opportunities.
  • Private Sector (Direct Application); these were corporate roles that I applied for without any contacts or support on the inside. What most people think of when they think about applying for a new job.
  • Private Sector (Referral); these were roles that I applied for indirectly through someone that I knew. Roles where I was either referred by an internal employee, or was contacted about an open role by a head-hunter who had an economic interest in placing a candidate.

I know. In retrospect, it was bloody stupid to combine those two categories. In my defence I’d never dealt with the sort of fly-by-night head-hunters that saturate the market. From the hiring side, I’d only ever worked with professionals. That’s why it took me so long to recognize the obvious pattern in the data – the useless head-hunters were masking the truth. 

I added each of those columns to show the grand total of job attempts I’d made to-date. After my first week of note taking, I added three additional rows: rejection notification, interviews conducted, and offers made. I totalled each of those rows as well, making a handy little table. My boss liked it because we could see strong daily progress. We were both encouraged … at first.

When I left that office four months later, I copied my informal table down in my notebook and took it with me. In my notes section, I’d kept a running change log for each day (e.g., ‘Apps, 24th April, +6 Private [Direct]’ and ‘Reject, 11th September, +1 Public [Federal]’). I’d made a new version of the table every time I ran out of space on a page from per-day log entries. By the end of my 18-month job search process, my logbook table looked like this:

Public Sector (Federal) Public Sector (Other) Private Sector (Direct) Private Sector (Referral) Total
Applications 70 13 335 86 504
Rejections 52 6 138 22 218
Interviews 0 3 19 18 40
Offer 0 0 0 1 1

Table 1. Raw job search data from my trusty notebook

The day that I in-processed the new company, I took a long, thoughtful look at the data that I’d amassed and drew some conclusions from the experience. The raw numbers told me several very interesting stories that convinced me to completely change my approach to future job search work.

The raw data also made for a damned depressing read. I’m surprised that Stephen King hasn’t written an existential horror story where the ‘monster’ is a sentient and malevolent national economy.

One useful example: even though I was fully-vetted in the federal civil service system and had 17 years’ credit in a senior management role, [1] I couldn’t score an interview at all in the civil service community. Not just for the same job series or grade that I’d held; I applied for positions that were above, at, and below my former level. I applied all over the country. It didn’t matter what job I applied for; I received no consideration in the federal space at all. 70 applications, zero interviews.

This trend remained consistent. Once I accepted that, I de-emphasized my efforts in pursuing federal roles. Instead of searching for new postings every week, I only searched only once a month. Given that it took me (on average) 40% longer to apply for a public sector role than it did for most private sector roles, I saved myself a bunch of time. That change alone made my meticulous note-taking habit worthwhile. The data also helped me accept the fact that applying for a federal position was – for all intents and purposes – futile. These days, I make a perfunctory look at appropriate (and local) federal positions about once every six months, but I expect nothing to come of it.

I eventually decided that I wanted more utility from my notes than simple trends, so I translated my logbook into an Excel spreadsheet that incorporated new data points. I recorded when I applied for a role, the specific organisation that I’d applied to, the position title, the level of the position, its location, its pay rate, how I’d found out about it, if/when the company responded, and what (if anything) the company said when they rejected me. I went back to every saved application record I could find, but wasn’t able to capture complete information for many of my early efforts. My final spreadsheet only featured 416 entries (out of the 504 that were recorded in my logbook), but the lessons that I learned from the expanded data set were incredibly valuable.

That is to say valuable, infuriating, and depressing all at the same time. Let’s try and focus on the ‘valuable’ parts right now.

Some of the revelations from my expanded workbook included these curious factoids:

  • I learned that federal agencies are far more likely to tell you that they don’t want you. Federal jobs had a staggering 74% response rate. That’s much better than the rest of public sector (46% response), direct private sector applications (41%), and insider referrals (26%).
  • Within the Federal space, feedback varied wildly between agencies. Agencies like the FBI and the VA had a 100% response rate. Most other agencies hovered around 75-80%. Some never replied at all. Once an agency went zero responses for two or more applications in 12 months, I wrote that agency off as not being worth applying to.
  • In contrast, private sector roles (when they responded at all) replied much faster than federal agencies did, sometimes on the same day that I’d applied. If a company was on the ball, they’d respond with either a rejection, an interview request, or a request for further information within 45 days; after that, the odds of ever hearing from them again dropped to zero.

It was analysis like this that reinforced my belief that evidence is more valuable to the job seeker than technique. As the experts had recommended, I made dozens of résumés, CVs, and cover letters – but I gave each one a unique tracking number so that I could evaluate the relative effectiveness of the design type, version, and variations used. I learned over time which keywords were most likely to ‘trip’ an Applicant Management System into sorting me into the ‘qualified’ bin. That helped too, but not nearly as much as learning where to apply. Some companies were simply black holes: I made a list of businesses that would never react to an application and stopped bothering with them.

I only managed to secure 40 interviews over 80 weeks, or about 0.5 interviews per week. Bear in mind that these weren’t interviews with 40 different companies; rather, the count represented discrete encounters with company reps. One company put me through nine separate interviews for a role that they’d never considered me to be qualified for. Most were a complete waste of my time.

It doesn’t matter which side of the table you’re sitting on. Interviewee or Interviewer, you can definitely tell when a discussion is going absolutely nowhere.

Still, I didn’t let the gruelling silence throw me off. Every Monday morning, I patiently compared my previous week’s efforts to actual responses received (from rejection letters, phone calls from HR, AMS status boards, etc.), and then attempted to adjust my approach to maximize my chances at receiving an interview. Over time, I saw my efficiency steadily increase: in the first six months, I received interviews with three different companies. In the next six months, five different companies. In the final six months, seven. Each CV improvement, work history build, etc. incrementally increased my ‘attractiveness’ for AMS processing and HR screener evaluations.

Did all that research and optimisation make a positive difference? Eh … Yes. Did all of that effort actually make the critical difference in converting an empty requirement to an offer? No. No, it didn’t.

That was the most damning revelation of all: applying for a position through an AMS was essentially a crap shoot with obscenely long odds. In June of 2013 I published a column about the process called ‘Tossing Blind’ that compared the process to lobbing stones over a high wall at targets that you were told existed but couldn’t confirm. One’s odds of scoring a hit were damned near zero.

Looking back over the entire process, the only tactic that actually worked for me was to network like crazy. When someone inside an organisation knew both the hiring manager and knew me personally endorsed me to the hiring authority, I’d get advanced to a useful interview. Six of the seven interviews that I got towards the end of my search – and the sole offer that I received – came about because of personal referrals. I’d always dismissed the adage ‘It’s not what you know but who you know that matters’ as nonsense. The data I compiled proved me wrong. In hindsight, I should have understood this: since 1999, every single job that I’d been offered (with one aberrant exception) was either wholly or mostly facilitated by a personal contact.

Once I accepted the truth of it, I changed more than just my approach to my own job hunting; I also changed how I networked with my peers and subordinates. I always remember how frustrating it was trying to get hiring managers’ attention so that I could prevent my value proposition. I remember how infuriating it was when organisations would refuse to communicate; wouldn’t even give me the courtesy of an automated rejection letter. Most importantly, I remember how bloody difficult it’s been to convince some civilian HR staff, head-hunters, and hiring managers that my government and military experience would be an asset to their organisation rather than a liability. [2]

Many green managers erroneously believe that the ‘best’ candidate for a position is one that’s only ever performed the exact same role in the exact same industry segment as the last person to hold the position. Seasoned leaders, on the other hand, recognize the competitive value of candidates who bring synergistic skills and experiences to the table. 

With those experiences firmly in mind, I greatly increased my efforts to help others network effectively. Now, when I meet or work with someone that I’d be willing to hire myself, I do whatever I can to help them. I help people polish their CVs, robust their LinkedIn profiles, improve on their interviewing skills, and optimize their searches. I also take every opportunity to recommend the qualified candidates in my business and social networks to anyone that I know may be hiring. Rather than wait to be asked for a favour, I seek out opportunities to endorse good people for new roles. I strive to do everything that I can to help decent people ‘beat’ a job-hunting system that seems to be wilfully rigged against them. I don’t want anyone else to have to waste their time logging hundreds of pointless applications only to have nothing to show for it.

I should have recognized the important of this pre-emptive approach much sooner. One of the core values that they teach you as a young squaddie is to never leave a brother behind. The principle applies just as much in the job market as it does on the battlefield. In both environments, the most effective way to help your buddy keep up with the group is to look around for who among you is faltering, and offer them aid before they ask for it. The team either makes it to friendly lines together or else it doesn’t make it at all.


[1] In US federal service, you can ‘buy back’ your active duty military time to make it count towards your civil service retirement. It’s pricey, but worth it … if you can then make it to the required 25 years of service to qualify for a full pension.

[2] I published four columns on this topic this time last year that I urge you consider: Squaddie’s Choice, The Tommy-Knockers, Ranger in a Strange Land, and An Abridge Too Far.

Title Allusion: Erich Maria Remarque, Im Westen nichts Neues (All Quiet on the Western Front; 1929 book)


POC is Keil Hubert, keil.hubert@gmail.com

Follow him on Twitter at @keilhubert.
You can buy his books on IT leadershipIT interviewing, horrible bosses and understanding workplace culture at the Amazon Kindle Store.

Keil-Hubert-featuredKeil Hubert is a retired U.S. Air Force ‘Cyberspace Operations’ officer, with over ten years of military command experience. He currently consults on business, security and technology issues in Texas. He’s built dot-com start-ups for KPMG Consulting, created an in-house consulting practice for Yahoo!, and helped to launch four small businesses (including his own).

Keil’s experience creating and leading IT teams in the defense, healthcare, media, government and non-profit sectors has afforded him an eclectic perspective on the integration of business needs, technical services and creative employee development… This serves him well as Business Technology’s resident U.S. blogger.

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